Cheryl’s Shepparton oasis

By John Lewis

We all need a happy place — somewhere to wind down, refresh and have fun. If it has history, so much the better. Businesswoman, tourism advocate, former political candidate and mother-of-three Cheryl Hammer's happy place is a little island of tranquility packed with memories, just on the edge of Shepparton.

Turn east off Shepparton's busy Archer St and keep going.

The further you travel, traffic lights and buildings give way to orchards and grasslands, your shoulders loosen up and your cares begin to drift away.

Then you get to The Churches.

Cheryl Hammer sits on an armchair under a vine-covered trellis at the back door of a small weatherboard house.

“In the autumn we think it's like Bright or even Tuscany. The colours change and people come on to the property and they feel so relaxed,” she says.

“They're churches of course, and I'm not particularly spiritual, but there's something about this property that allows you to think about the people who worshipped here, got married here, or came to school here. You feel a real connection and it's amazing how many people say the same thing.”

The main building operated from 1913 for decades as a church. Today it provides accommodation for people seeking serenity in the shade.

Cheryl is someone who has walked many paths and worn a lot of public hats. As chief executive of the philanthropic Greater Shepparton Foundation — formerly the Goulburn Valley Community Fund — she is responsible for overseeing the distribution of hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and scholarships to help tackle disadvantage in Shepparton.

She is a former chief executive of the Fairley Foundation and a founding member of tourism and arts body Lifestyle Dookie — a reminder of her years growing lavender in the dynamic little town with husband Rhys. She has been a leading light in Shepparton and district tourism bodies, she is the mother of three young men, and somehow she found time to run for parliament as the Liberal candidate for Shepparton in last year's state election.

No wonder she needs somewhere like The Churches as a sanctuary from the hurly-burly.

Cheryl was born in 1964 in Tocumwal, the eldest of four children to baker Frank and mum Shirley.

When she was eight, the family moved to Shepparton to run the city's first Hot Bread Bin on High St.

“I worked in the business from the time I was about 12 or 13, putting all the flatbread and continental bread into paper bags for all the Italian customers,” Cheryl says.

Cheryl attended St Georges Road Primary School and then Shepparton High School before going on to Deakin University at Geelong. She left uni to take up a journalism cadetship at the Shepparton News in 1982.

Her journalism journey and her capacity for leadership in chief-of-staff roles took her to Melbourne, Sydney and Queensland before she returned with Rhys to his family farm at Dookie in the 1990s.

They bought the Orrvale property on Poplar Rd 12 years ago after eyeing its business potential as a retail outlet.

“I used to drive in to Shepp from the lavender farm at Dookie and come past this place all the time. I used to think, wow, what I wouldn't give to own a place like that for my lavender shop,” she says.

The lavender farm and business have gone, but The Churches remains as self-contained accommodation. Such is Cheryl's business acumen and attention to detail, The Churches has won gold and bronze awards at the Victorian Tourism Awards.

Somewhere to sit and wind down - with a reminder of the building's days as a place of worship.

She says it is also a popular spot for fashion shoots, weddings, christenings and family gatherings.

“Every time I come on to the property, no matter why I'm here — sometimes it's just to have a cup of coffee with some girlfriends in the garden, or a champagne on Saturday afternoon in the autumn — it feels like a holiday somewhere else, but it's only seven minutes from Shepparton,” Cheryl says.

The main building dates back to the early 1900s and was used as a Presbyterian church from about 1913.

It was later used as a school house during the construction of the present-day Orrvale Primary School on Channel Rd. By the mid 1980s the weatherboard building was no longer being used as a church and was falling into disrepair. It was eventually purchased by a neighbour before being refurbished by a builder who also brought a second weatherboard church on to the property.

Cheryl says the property is packed with memories that are kept alive through people who visit.

“When we first bought the place we opened it up for locals to come through — people were telling me their mother was married here, or how they used to have picnics here and swim in the channel, children were christened here. There is something about the property that really resonates with me,” she says.

Cheryl's business and leadership roles have taken her down a lot of paths since selling bread in High St — but she says there's more to come.

“I know I've got live to 104 to do everything I want to do,” she says.

So what's on the agenda?

“Well I do diarise and journal a lot — and I know I'm going to write a book one day. There are issues here in our society such as drugs and mental health that I want to make an impact on.

“I could take myself off to a little French village to write — but I picture myself here all the time,” she says, looking around at her Orrvale oasis.